Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Choosing a Career Path in Your Teens, Now THAT's a Tough Job!

I think that these 6 "P's" are key to not just choosing a career, but forging your legacy:
  • Passion & Predilection 
  • Proficiency & Propensity 
  • Purpose & Principle 
More on the "P's" below, but this topic came up because my nephew, David, who was 16 at the time, made a statement that surprised me.  In answer to the typical adult question from one of his family members "What career are you thinking of going into?" he said "doctor".  Now he's a very smart guy (high school marks consistently in the low 90's), but has never struck me as the doctoring type (which is not just about being empathetic and a good listener, but also involves non-stop diagnosis/problem solving), however his mother is a doctor, so I suspect there's a desire to please her that is playing a strong factor.

Nevertheless, his need to start thinking about what course his schooling should take brought to mind the issue of choosing the right path and how difficult it is to have any clue what you are ideally suited to do at the tender age of your late teens.  Looking back I suspect that the choices most teens make are often what their parents want or what their teachers guide them towards based upon the courses they score well in, and aren't really about where their hearts or aptitudes lie. 

I touched upon this topic some weeks ago with a Russian woman who immigrated to Canada some time ago.  She is a math teacher and was a mathematician before emigrating and she is appalled by many aspects of Canada's education system which we agreed has been transformed from it's former 'mandate to educate' back in the 60's and 70's, when we had relatively little homework but a lot of in-class drills and pop-quizzes, into a "PC" (politically correct) glorified babysitting service in which 'homework' is used to actually teach and 'drill in' the lessons (yes, I'm over-generalizing, but the point remains valid).

The most interesting thing we discussed, however, is that in the unreformed Russian education system, they still carry on the Soviet tradition of aptitude testing that channels kids into careers they are actually skilled at and motivated by.  Today's Grade 12ers should all have mandatory aptitude testing, in my opinion.  They would learn not just what they are good at, but more importantly what they are decidedly not-so-good at, like believing their parents when they repeated ad infinitum "Little (insert Millennial's name), you can be ANYthing you want to be in this life!" (Note: The Millennials are the generation born, roughly, in the late 80's and through to the early 2000's.  They have never known a life without the Internet and hand-held devices.)

I know an 'early Millennial' (in her late 20's) who is a high school drop-out and is now studying interior design part-time.  Like so many of this generation, she just assumes she will have a successful career in it after graduating because it 'seems cool' and she enjoys dabbling in it.  The problem is she's never demonstrated a passion for it, nor does she have any kind of portfolio to prove she has any aptitude for it (these days, just because a community college will take your money for courses DOES NOT mean you are going to find work in the field!). She MIGHT get a job in an home decorating retail store, or painting faux-finishes on walls, but becoming a full-fledged interior designer is VERY difficult and very, very few people ever make a decent living at it (mostly because EVERYONE thinks they are, at heart, supremely-skilled interior designers -- yet, we never think the same thing about dentistry, for example  ;-).  Success in many highly specialized careers requires talent, money, personality, hard work and luck. 

I heard this line from a now defunct country band called The Road Hammers on my way into work today:
Life is just a word till you go through it.
I've got the scars to prove it.
So, with my scars, what advice can I offer my nephew on career choice?  Here are three points I heard recently at what I call a 'feel good' seminar by David Howlett, who was quoting Dr. Lisa Studnicki:
  1. Assume everyone is intelligent.
  2. Find a calling you are passionate about.
  3. Get over yourself.
Now Dave uses Lisa's points to describe how to live a decent life, but while she was talking about how to succeed in business, I believe that her points can guide us in choosing a career (though they require some manipulation!):
  1. Assume everyone is intelligent -- Nice 'PC' notion, but everyone is NOT equally intelligent, and despite what your mom told you, you might not be all that good at whatever you happen to find interesting, so choose a career that will challenge and interest you, but that doesn't set you up for failure by 'over-reaching'.
  2. Find a calling you are passionate about -- If you aren't passionate about it at your core, it is just going to be a tedious grind.  Sadly, some people have limitations that mean they cannot fulfill their most starry-eyed career dreams, but they can choose a field that interests them.  My dad could not become an architect, as much as he wanted to, but he did enjoy a successful career as an architectural draftsman and later as a teacher of that skill.  Our passions change over time, however, so if you are a 'serial passion' type of person, find a field/career that involves constant change.  Advertising did that for me.
  3. Get over yourself -- Indeed.  See my point #1 above.  Self-confidence is necessary for many jobs, being an entrepreneur being a prime example, but if you don't start your career search off by recognizing what you are NOT good at, you ARE going to end up frustrated and failing.  (Think about all those American Idol wannabe's who are CONVINCED, supported by mommy, that they're great singers.)
But let's walk away from opinion, from what people "feel" is good advice and steer clear of any given "philosophy" of how to approach career counseling for a moment.  Let's look at what Dan Pink has to say about what came out of two key social science studies done on human motivations as they apply to work, one by MIT/University of Chicago/Carnegie-Mellon scientists, the other commission by the US Federal Reserve Bank.  What Dan distilled out of these studies (click to watch the video) is that, once you are paying people enough that they can stop fretting about making enough to cover their expenses, the ONLY things that really matter in motivating employees to create novel and break-through solutions to today's kinds of problems are:
  1. Autonomy – The urge to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery – The desire to get better and better at something that matters
  3. Purpose – The yearning to do something that we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.
Sure, you might say it sounds like the 'mission statement' of today's emerging 'Millennial' generation, it's all about them, it's all about 'entitlement':
  1. Autonomy"I know I've only been on the job for a week, but I'm going to pop into the CEO's office and tell him what I think the company should be focusing on."
  2. Mastery"I stayed up till 4 AM and got to level 32 in World of Warcraft!  ...but I lost the McGreggor account for my company the next day."
  3. Purpose"My first year of working I quit three jobs because the bosses all wanted me to do stuff I didn't see the point in, but THIS year my Granny is paying for me to go to Guatemala to build schools for a year!"
Hm.  Dan Pink and those scientists just might be onto something!  Figuring out how to motivate and manage Millennials is one of today's biggest challenges for both Baby Boomer and Gen X managers who's entire careers have been spent in the old 'carrot and stick' system of compensation, yet by simply applying these three guidelines, people of any generation will feel fully motivated.  For teens who agree wholeheartedly that they MUST have these elements in their careers, they should start thinking now about what callings have autonomy, mastery and purpose built-in.

What President Obama and Dan Pink [he says "the right (creative) side of the brain is going to dominate"] point out regularly these days is that no country in the world is going to continue to flourish economically if they do not come to understand that it will be education and innovation that drives growth in the future.  [One of my key points on my 'business insights' blog is that ad agencies are no longer going to make piles of cash by being creative merely with ad campaigns, their new role will be to create innovative new business models and IP (intellectual property).]  The superstars of tomorrow MUST embrace this reality and throughout their higher education need to try to learn how to stay flexible and open, how to analyze and come up with creative solutions.

There is a universal truth that the youth of today face more so than any previous generation: human intelligence hasn't changed, improved, or evolved in 150,000 years -- all that has happened in the last 10% of Homo Sapiens Sapiens' existence as a species on earth is that we have learned how (invented new ways) to share knowledge with each other faster and faster and this has led to us putting our surprisingly large brain power (which is little more than an 'accident' of evolution) to work in more and more narrow specialties.  We are taking centuries of scientific discovery and are 'drilling down' in our careers.  There will be few 'generalists' as we move forward, just more and more experts in narrow fields.  

What this means for today's youth is that they MUST choose careers they're actually naturally skilled at because there's more competition and less flexibility to change direction down the road.  You can no longer merely choose what you like, you have to try to choose what you are both passionate about AND you are really good at! 

In offering up some advice to Katherine Le about her future (she is a Business Analyst, but has considerable and demonstrable creative talent as a prolific former blogger, as well as artistic potential) I came up with an extension of Daniel Pink's insights, following a lot of research, into what three things are key to motivating and inspiring happiness in your employees:

I believe Pink's three key points can be translated into career-choosing advice with a bit of 'elaboration'.  [Note that, while 'autonomy' is a lovely thing once you have some expertise at a job and know what needs doing, when you are relatively 'green' (and no, not even an MBA magically turns one into a visionary who needs no direction from her/his chain of command), autonomy should not be number one in your list of demands for a new job (though it may eventually become important AFTER you prove yourself for a few years ;-).  Leveraging Purpose to Master "The 6 P's" will lead to Autonomy, and quite possibly a lot more.]  These "6 P's" are the intangibles that I believe one needs to be successful not only in your choice of career, but also in one's hobbies -- your ‘secondary careers’ which can sometimes turn into one's true legacy:
  • Passion & Predilection -- Try to choose something that you are not only truly passionate about (i.e. you wake up excited to go to work most days), but that you actually have a innate craving that drives you to do it.
  • Proficiency & Propensity -- Make sure it is something that OTHER PEOPLE tell you you are actually really talented at without working too hard so that you can (eventually) actually make money doing it.
  • Purpose & Principle — Be clear in your own mind what the reason for doing what you are doing is, what benefit the finished product is going to offer to your market, AND be sure that you are not going to succeed at the expense of others (see: "What the World Needs" in the Venn diagram above).
If you are lucky enough, if you work hard enough and if you can apply enough smarts (develop adaptable, focused strategies and live by them) to be able to apply ALL "6 P's" in finding your ideal career/dream job (OR even a hobby -- Danny MacAskill embodies "The 6 P's"), you just might end up with a real legacy behind you.

One of the most interesting brain research findings I've read about over the past decade was in an article in MacLean's magazine titled "Why You Think You're Wonderful" by Brian Bethune that detailed a study that found we humans actually have a built-in protective switch that prevents our egos from the damage that admitting we are not good at something might cause.  In other words, we automatically and naturally ignore evidence that we have no talent for certain things, hence the American Idol auditions are painfully fun to watch!  This gives us the confidence to persevere and continue (survive) even though we should really let someone else do that particular job.

While it's fun to try out for America Idol despite your inherent 'areas for improvement' (and you mom telling you you're great...), Millennials would be wise to second-guess their career choices and get some experienced (seasoned), and even professional input on their choices before going too far down any particular road purely on the basis of their interests alone, or what they think might be an ego-boosting career.  Hope this helps!

Something that is more guaranteed to help, Dan Pink's Manga illustrated book about how to choose a career:  "Johnny Bunko - The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need"

Pink's key points:
  1. There is no (life-long career) plan.  (Shit just happens!)
  2. Think (leveraging your) strengths, not (trying to improve upon your) weaknesses.
  3. It's not about you.  (It's about making your boss and teammates look good!)
  4. Persistence trumps talent. (The top people aren't just talented, they stick to it.)
  5. Make excellent mistakes. (Superstars never let fear of failure hold them back.)
  6. Leave an imprint.  (Think long and hard EARLY about what your legacy will be.)
Addendum 2013:  Recently the ever-inspiring and eclectic Seth Godin has suggested that, through his considerable expertise in 'future-watching' (and creating the future), the future of 'careers' ('jobs') might be in never having a secure, steady job for decades, but rather being in constant flux, often unemployed, under-employed, then overly-taxed with too much contract-style work over some periods.  Watch his interview on the subject by clicking here. 

 And from Maclean's magazine, some specific direction for today's high school grads:
Click to enlarge visual.


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